This paper is about the world, but I've never written it. Editing Resources Other Resources Hosted by pair Networks A Critique of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Version of Natural Law Theory Paradoxically, Martin Luther King, Jr. , in his 'Letter from Birmingham City Jail,' initially uses classical natural law theory to defend his actions, but immediately thereafter contradicts a fundamental tenet of this theory and relies on a 'weaker' version of natural law. In doing so, King must attempt to formulate a theory which justifies his illegal actions in view of his moral obligation to obey the law. King's failure to distinguish between legal obligations and moral obligations yields a logical paradox in his final formulation of natural law theory. However, King's theory need not be completely rejected if his argument is slightly modified to reject the moral obligation to obey laws.
King initially uses classical natural law theory as his rational basis to defend his actions. This theory has two main component claims according to Murphy and Coleman (Sourcebook, I-35), the first being, 'Moral validity is a logically necessary condition for legal validity- an unjust or immoral law being no law at all' followed by, 'The moral order is a part of the natural order- moral duties being in some sense 'read off' from essences or purposes fixed (perhaps by God) in nature.' According to this theory, morality ' law, but law = morality by definition. Thus for King to use this theory, two requirements are implicit. He must assert that an unjust law is not really a law, and he must provide a moral theory to distinguish just and unjust laws. King first quotes St. Augustine, 'an unjust law is no law at all,' to emphasize his agreement with the first claim.
He then includes the 'law of God' as his moral theory to provide the framework upon which to judge the law. His argument using classical natural law theory at first seems to be a valid and necessary defense for breaking the law, i. e. disobeying segregation laws and orders to not march. Most people are initially supportive of his argument that an unjust law is not a law he can or should obey. King's comment that 'one has a moral responsibility to obey just laws...
one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws' (Letter, p 3) therefore appears to justify his actions. However, a rational analysis makes apparent several difficulties associated with this argument. Claiming that there is a moral responsibility to obey just laws actually forces a person to question the purpose of laws in general. King's statement that: 'The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust.
I would be the [first] to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws " has two main problems associated with it. If a person takes the position that she will only obey 'just' laws conforming to her moral code, then as Murphy and Coleman point out the law becomes accepted only in situations where it is least necessary. Thus a moral theory in and of itself does not provide a very good justification for obeying law since there is no reason to stipulate by law what the populace accepts as morally required.
The other problem with this theory is that moral codes alone are not responsible for obeying the law. An obligation to do something can be generated by the act of creating an obligation (a promise) even though the content of that obligation may be morally questionable. Additionally, King's claim that unjust laws are not really laws is strongly criticized by positivist theorists. He defends his actions by stating 'one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws... I would agree with St. Augustine that OE an unjust law is no law at all.' ' To a positive theorist this is anathema for the reason that it forces natural law theory to be based either on dogma, i.
e. religion, or on the subjective nature of human morality. As Alf Ross writes, 'Like a harlot, natural law is at the disposal of everyone. The ideology does not exist that cannot be defended by an appeal to the law of nature.' He basically says that determining an unjust law by virtue of an arbitrary moral theory will eventually lead to anarchy. Following King's theory, any 'moral' person could claim exemption from the law based on their religion.
It is interesting to note that this argument is precisely what Justice Frankfurter protested in his dissent (West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnett e), 'One may have the right to practice one's religion and at the same time owe the duty of formal obedience to laws that run counter to one's beliefs.' King realizes the absurdity of claiming that a law doesn't exist simply because it is unjust. He therefore immediately abandons the Augustinian version of natural law and acknowledges the existence of legal rules deemed to be morally wrong. He writes, 'clear thinking would force us to acknowledge [them] as laws even if we believed them to be morally evil.' (I-40) The nature of this statement is to directly oppose his previous argument that an 'unjust law in no law at all.' As Murphy and Coleman point out, there is nothing to be gained by failing to acknowledge the existence of a law, even a law deemed to be unfair, evil or irrational.
In King's case, there would be no reason to march to fight an unjust law if he could dismiss the law by claiming that it does not exist. Thus King is compelled to modify his later theories into a justification of public civil disobedience. 'In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.' This phrase seems to parallel Alf Ross in realizing that classical natural law theory needs boundaries, starting with the acceptance of law. It is interesting to note that nowhere does King seem to realize the problems created by opposing moral theories when applied to natural law.
Rather, he rejects classical natural law strictly for the reason that he cannot justify challenging a law which the theory claims does not exist. It is at this point where King faces the paradoxical problem of maintaining the moral dogma he advocates while simultaneously acknowledging the existence of all laws, a problem which he is unable to resolve. By accepting the existence of the laws King effectively abandons the first tenet of classical natural law theory which states that unjust or immoral laws are no laws at all. Having abandoned this tenet, King must now be able to justify disobeying the law since he accepts its existence. His justification lies in the form of several arguments, the first of which is that publicly and willingly breaking an unjust law is different from purposeful evasion or defiance of that law. At first this seems nonsensical, since the actions taken are identical.
But for King, the difference rests not in the actions themselves, but in the justification for the actions. Thus, because King and his followers feel a law is evil and immoral they have the right (or even the obligation according to King) to publicly and willingly break the law. Thus, if someone defies the law for immoral purposes then King would argue that they do not have a right to break the law. This argument is shaky at best. Consider King's statement if proposed by an equally dogmatic and religious person who firmly believes in the inferiority of blacks as ordained by God. This person can equally well manipulate King's argument to justify disobeying anti-discrimination laws as being immoral.
The problem for King lies in the fact that once he acknowledges the existence of laws, no moral theory will be sufficient to justify breaking those laws without conceding the same right to opposing moral theories. This was not a problem when he adhered to the classical natural law theory because under that theory the law being broken didn't exist. Thus it is only when King abandons the first tenet of classical natural law theory that his version of natural law becomes unstable. King uses two other arguments to identify unjust laws: just laws must be equally binding to all persons, and just laws must be created by fair processes. Both of these arguments are relegated small paragraphs in the overall letter, but are crucially important to justify breaking the law. King seems to have failed to realize the importance of these statements, which will be dealt with later on.
A fundamental error in advocating natural law theory for King is his inability to distinguish between moral obligations and legal ones. H. L. A. Hart states that natural law theorists fail to realize that the 'concept of legal obligation is different from the concept of moral obligation' (I-40). Basically Hart argues that natural law theorist fail to consider the fact that moral obligations are completely unenforceable, and failure to uphold a....